Chumash Indians are planning to build as many as 500 luxury homes, a hotel resort, two championship golf courses and an equestrian center in a joint venture with Fess Parker, the former actor who once played Davy Crockett.
In the first project of its kind by a California tribe, the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians will seek to convert the property to “Indian country” status, which would prevent state and local planners from exerting any authority over the development.
Members of the tribe voted 72 to 37 this month to approve paying Parker $12 million for approximately 745 acres of rolling farmland about two miles from their reservation, according to sources familiar with the deal.
Under the tentative agreement, scheduled to be announced at a news conference this morning, the Chumash tribe would own 51% of the partnership and Fesspar LLC, a Parker company, would retain 49%, along with primary control over planning and development. The cost of the project is estimated at about $250 million, the sources said.
The chairman of the Chumash, Vincent Armenta, confirmed in an interview that his tribe intended to petition the U.S. Department of Interior to place the land into federal trust. If the petition is approved, the state and county will lose the power to levy taxes, regulate land use, impose environmental restrictions and address effects on traffic, air quality, public safety and schools. All of those matters would be left to the Chumash to determine under the rule of tribal sovereignty.
The scale of the project far exceeds any real estate development in the Santa Ynez community, a rural village about a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles that is dotted with vineyards and livestock ranches and small inns and shops that cater to tourists. The $150-million Chumash Casino, which opened in September, is the largest local employer, and the tribe plans to open an adjacent 106-room hotel in June.
Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gail Marshall said she expected the proposed project to generate “no shortage of rancor” among people in the Santa Ynez Valley. Marshall and many of her constituents have criticized Chumash leaders for failing to divulge plans for their casino in advance.
Armenta said the tribe had decided to disclose its newest development early in the process, giving county officials and residents plenty of time to respond. He promised to consult county elected officials and planners.
“I’m not saying that anything the county wants, they’re going to get,” Armenta said. “I’m saying we’re going to listen to them. Do we need county approval on the project? No. But we certainly want it.”
Curtis Moniot, an architectural designer and Santa Ynez Valley resident, said the community was troubled by the tribe’s efforts to circumvent regional and county planning laws by asserting its sovereign status.
“You have an entity able to usurp county government, Caltrans, the state water resources board and just basically everybody,” Moniot said. “The voters gave the tribe a monopoly on gambling, but in effect that is being parlayed into a monopoly on development rights.”
Chumash leaders are following the lead of other California tribes that are using casino proceeds to expand their investments as the political climate and public attitude toward Indian gaming changes.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is demanding that the 54 gaming tribes in California “pay their fair share” of an estimated $5 billion in annual revenues to the cash-strapped state treasury. Also, card rooms and racetracks are pushing an initiative for the November ballot that would threaten the tribes’ exclusive rights to gambling.
“This is an opportunity as a business to expand and diversify,” Armenta said of the partnership with Parker. “We need to look at things other than gaming that will benefit our tribe and ensure a healthy financial future for our people.”
Equally important, Armenta said, the project would alleviate a critical housing shortage on the small Chumash reservation. Tentative plans include setting aside 150 homes for tribal members.
The project would be in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley at the intersection of highways 154 and 246. Parker paid $6 million for 1,428 acres in 1998, and since then Santa Barbara County officials have resisted his efforts to develop the land, he said. In November, Parker listed the ranch for $28 million.
About the same time, Parker said, he approached Armenta about developing half the property with the Chumash.
“It just happens that our needs dovetail,” said Parker, who starred in the 1954 TV hit “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter.”
He added, “If we implement our plans, we’d like to do what we can to preserve the beauty of the area. We’re not out to destroy anything.”
The parties hope to close escrow by June. While stressing that no formal agreements have been signed and the details are preliminary, Armenta said he is optimistic that construction could be underway within four years.
The process of placing land into federal trust was established in 1934 by the Indian Reorganization Act to compensate tribes for the loss of native lands. It can take as long as a decade for the secretary of the Interior to approve trust application. But Armenta said he believed the federal government would look favorably on his tribe’s petition because the Chumash tribe once inhabited the area that is now the Parker property and the plan includes Indian housing.
Since 2000, the tribe has placed two parcels in federal trust, bringing the size of the reservation to 138 acres.
The tribal chairman is upbeat about working closely with county officials.
“I honestly believe if they take a look at this, not in a political manner, but what it’s going to do economically for the entire valley, they are going to say this is a great project,” Armenta said. “Housing developments in the area are inevitable. Here is a way to tastefully do a project that addresses everyone’s concerns.”
Marshall, however, is skeptical if the development is placed off limits to local government.
“I’m not really sure how it greatly benefits the surrounding community if the project generates no property taxes, no sales taxes and no occupancy taxes” while it competes with other communities and other hotels, she said.
The Chumash tribe is counting on its partnership with Parker, a local celebrity and benefactor, to help smooth the way.
“We are honored to be associated with Mr. Parker,” Armenta said, calling the developer “an American icon and a savvy businessman who has helped enhance the Santa Ynez Valley.”
Parker, who will turn 80 in August, had a moderately successful Hollywood career. After a handful of one-hour episodes in which he played Davy Crockett, produced by the Walt Disney Co., Parker donned another coonskin cap to play Daniel Boone in a television series that first aired in 1964 and had a six-year run.
Parker carved out a second career as a successful hotelier and vintner. In 1986, he built the Fess Parker Doubletree Inn on beachfront property in Santa Barbara and he will soon begin construction on an adjacent luxury hotel. Among his holdings in the Santa Ynez Valley are a 21-room Victorian-style inn in Los Olivos and a 714-acre winery in Foxen Canyon.
Parker said he hoped to build a development similar to Hope Ranch, the wealthy seaside enclave in Santa Barbara.
“There isn’t any place I know of that’s more beautiful,” said Parker in his Texas drawl, standing on his property in brown leather cowboy boots as cattle grazed nearby on a carpet of tall grass, surrounded by the San Rafael and Los Padres mountain ranges. “Many a day I’ve been out here, just looking.”
Parker said he envisioned a “country development” with spacious homes on expansive lots with no sidewalks, curbs or street lighting. He predicted home buyers would be affluent baby boomers from Los Angeles and Orange counties.
While it is undecided how much the tribe’s 156 members would pay for their homes, the residences available to the public are expected to cost in the neighborhood of $1 million, sources said.
One of many potential obstacles to the project will be finding home buyers who are restricted from owning the land and must secure long-term leases.
During his initial discussions with Armenta, Parker recalled a black-and-white photograph of him as Crockett shaking hands a half century ago with a Native American character in the “Indian Fighter” episode.
“In the Crockett movie, one of my adversaries was Red Stick, played by a wonderful Irish actor named Pat Hogan,” Parker said. “At the end of our struggles, we ended up as friends. I think that was the philosophy of Walt Disney in those films. You fight your enemy whoever it is and you’re friends with good people.”